It was the office holiday party, the 2pm chitchat by the coffee machine, the company retreat – these experiences were what built connections between professionals. And through connection came culture. Then the hybrid work schedule arrived, and people started asking: where did our connection go? What happened to our workplace culture?

These questions have real business consequences for the future of work. Our latest research on the future of work reveals that 52% of employees suggest the disconnect they feel with their employer could push them to leave their roles. However, if bringing people back to the office is your solution, think again. A separate study highlights that ​​64% of respondents said going back to the office will negatively impact their mental health. The only way forward, then, experts say, is to adapt to the culture change and rebuild connection. “Unless managers and organizations are intentional about doing that in hybrid work environments, there are going to be ongoing issues with creating full engagement and trust,” says Margie Warrell, Korn Ferry’s Senior Client Partner in its CEO succession and executive development practice.

Positive culture change might be uncomfortable — at first

There are indeed few things that can replace the in-person bonding dynamics that we evolved over millions of years. However, for those in hybrid models, there will still be a chance to form relationships – it’s simply that the chances will be fewer, meaning each opportunity will require intentionality. “The office is the new retreat. And when people come together, make sure that it’s meaningful and not just random,” says Warrell. The benefit of being present in the office, even occasionally, reveals itself in an environment’s increased psychological safety, which is one of the best predictors of high-performing teams. “At the core of that is shared vulnerability,” Warrell continues.

For those balking at coming into the office at all, Warrell suggests leaders have one-on-one conversations in which they share their own uncertainties while also giving employees a sense of control. “As a leader, I’d be saying, ‘I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to do this. And I invite you to help me in figuring this out.’” These conversations may, of course, elicit some pushback around the discomfort of having to commute once again to a physical location. But Warrell reminds that while we are psychologically wired for familiarity, certainty and comfort, it’s doing the uncomfortable that causes us to learn and expand into our best selves.

“It’s the role of the leader to help set the conditions for people to grow into their fullest potential. And growth and comfort can’t coexist.”

Margie Warrell, Ph.D., Senior Client Partner, Korn Ferry

The future of work acknowledges our biology

Still, the question lingers: how can leaders create a semblance of rapport between employees for times when they’re not in the same physical space? “Being on video calls all day is a struggle because our brains are saying I can see you, I can hear you, but I can’t feel you,” says Andy Holmes, a Korn Ferry Associate Client Partner who takes a human-centric approach to sustainable high-performance. We are biologically conditioned to be empathetic and to feel each other, says Holmes, and doing so through a screen is very difficult.

Instead, Holmes advises workers to change their environment throughout the day and also try more ‘walk and talk’ calls to improve mental health. “We’ve done stress recovery diagnostics, where you can see a clinically significant drop in stress and active recovery when people do a 20-minute walk and talk on the phone using an earpiece.” Reducing the stress around interactions, Holmes asserts, is bound to make those connections more meaningful.

Experts say another way to build bridges among hybrid workers is by organizing drop-in online lunches, where team members have the option to log on during lunchtime to chat about non-work topics – this offers a much-needed space to share your humanity with colleagues, just as you would at the office cafeteria. A more bite-sized version of this would be setting up occasional one-on-one 15-minute morning coffee breaks and rotating who you casually start your day with.

When it comes to work-related video calls, Holmes suggests leaders should focus on keeping the number of participants as low as possible. He posits that 60-70% of meeting attendees are either overqualified or underqualified for the topic of discussion. “If you’re overqualified, you’re going to be bored. If you’re underqualified, you’re going to be anxious. It’s like watching a really bad TV program.” Trimming attendee numbers, he adds, not only benefits the people who don’t need to be there, but it also strengthens the bonds between those who do.

Our time to take control

The future of work in 2023

Embracing the Radically Human side of workplace culture

Workplace culture has been through countless iterations and innovations through the eras. What hasn’t changed from Henry Ford to today is what culture is: the sum of all our behaviors. And as Warrell posits, senior executives have a responsibility to model those behaviors appropriately if they expect to see them in their own workforce. “The more leaders can show up fully human, the more they give space for others to show up.”

To learn more about how to build a dynamic workplace culture, download the future of work eBook and watch our webinar, “Secrets to culture success: World's Most Admired Companies share their insights”, to gain further insight into building a future-fit culture.